Taka Ishii Gallery New York is tucked neatly away on the third floor of an Upper East Side townhouse. The elevator opens directly into the spare gallery entry where, currently, you will be confronted by a two-foot oil and acrylic monochrome on paper that looks to be made of molten lead. The work is by 78-year old Japanese painter, Tomoharu Murakami, and it is one of ten works comprising what seems to be his second solo presentation to date in New York.
Of the ten works, all are from the 1990s. Nine are oil and acrylic works on paper and one is oil on canvas. The colors on display are that molten grey (three works), red and black (six framed “Transfiguration” works) and Murakami’s trademark pitch-black (the unframed oil painting). The largest works are the molten grey works on paper, coming in at two by one and half feet. In spite of their modest scale, these works are individually arresting and I doubt you will see painterly surfaces as mesmerizing and concrete as Murakami’s any time soon. In that sense, it is completely worth your time to try to see these works in person and up close.
Murakami initially enrolled in university to train in ink painting but he quickly found himself making abstract expressionistic paintings solely in black paint made of a mixture of Japanese pigments and oil paints. “The decisive moment of this transformation occurred when he was invited to participate in and witnessed the enormous scale and solidity of the American abstract expressionist paintings included in the Guggenheim International Award Exhibition held in New York in 1964. Shocked by these works, Murakami abandoned Japanese painting techniques and began employing a new method in which he painted the canvas with a black undercoat and layered more black paint on top of it to gradually build a thick surface. After this shift, he concentrated on completing black paintings that satisfied his ideal.”
It would take him until 1974, ten whole years, before he had paintings that he was able and willing to exhibit in a solo exhibition in Tokyo.
That Murakami imposes such exceedingly high personal standards on himself and his work is evident just by looking at his work. For example, his black oil monochromes are often so densely built up and so velvety that the first time I saw one in the gallery’s viewing room many months ago I read it as an industrial fabric or rubber swatch exhibited on a stretcher bar as a found painting: it looked nothing like paintings that I associate has having come from a human hand.
Uniting all the works in the Taka Ishii show is that same unnerving sense of, not unworldliness, but strangely its exact opposite, a radical worldliness. These works present as self-sufficient and kind of anti-conceptual despite how process driven they are in that they give the literal impression of being complete and at home in the world, as if they couldn’t care less if they had a viewer or not.
As the gallery describes it, Murakami’s “works on canvas are made by mixing charcoal powder into the paint to absorb the oil and using a knife to work the paint onto the support. On the other hand, his works on paper are made with a combination of acrylic and oil paints, which are normally thought to be incompatible. He applies the acrylic paint with a pencil and oil paint with a knife to create finely distinguished layers of paint that give depth to the picture plane. Murakami produces both canvas and paper works over a long period, sometimes taking years to create a single work.”
A few years after his Tokyo solo show Murakami visited a Trappist monastery in Hokkaido and a chance encounter with a monk there led to him joining their strict, disciplined life. He would wake in the middle of the night, paint, break for chores, join in communal prayers and meals, nap, work and end the day. As the essay accompanying Murakami’s recent Nagoya retrospective “Out of Silence,” describes it, “at this point of his artistic career, Murakami’s art had undergone a complete transformation. He became an artist who took a position opposite from the modern art painters who were centered on revealing their own self-expressions. He no longer cared whether his ‘black paintings,’ which were completed as a result of the long hours he spent working with his hands, were seen as ‘paintings.’ His deeds, which he came to see as his ‘prayers to God,’ no longer had to be considered as the ‘creating’ of his paintings. That is, even though he performed the same ‘deeds’ as in the past, the feelings that he put into the work had changed.”
These works are contrarian, almost cranky, in that they are imbued with sincere religious feelings and that means they are, despite their initial impression, anti-contemporary if not anti-modern, being “marked with a process in which man devotes his life to the attainment of a sublime spirit.” This, to me, is what in many respects makes them special, utterly unique and compelling as objects of attention in terms of the art of today.
These slight objects also function as markers of endurance art considering the daily toil and physical discipline it took to make them: minute dots of sooty black oil paint applied by the thousands over innumerable days with a palette knife until the surface takes on an overall uniformity where Murakami’s individual presence is no longer locatable but the presence of the human hand remains. It is only then that he considers a work complete.
Outside the scope of this tightly knit show, Murakami produced over the years some white monochromes (“Psalm,” “Lady Chapel” and “Noel,” to name a few) that result from painstakingly building up a black oil painting and then taking a fine metal stylus to gently scrape back down, as a to the support, this time as form of meditative prayer through erasure. Similarly he has used a sharp, hard pencil to scrape away a white painted monochrome which results in a ghostly, intricate lacework of straight pencil lines. He also produced multi-piece series in black and red such as “Monos” and “The Stations of the Cross” series. These works can all be found in the exhibition catalog for his Nagoya retrospective, “Out of Silence” (a pain to source, but worth the hunt).
“Morning, noon, night, and despondence: these things that definitely exist cannot be captured with one’s perceptions. Is it possible to fix such existences on a two-dimensional canvas? It might be that when I dispose of unnecessary intentions, and can just simply be ‘natural,’ then it is possible for me to manifest ‘the profound’ that encompasses everything. I hope to touch that ‘profundity’ over a long passage of time, and through my daily act of applying paint to my paintings.” Tomoharu Murakami, February 1982.
Murakami is nearing 80 years old and I was told he is no longer painting much these days and “he has even begun to remove what he has accumulated in his lifetime. He is attempting to approach the end of his life through discarding one after another the things he has accumulated from the time he was born into this world as a human being.”
The essay in the slim, lovely book published by the gallery to accompany this exhibition sums it up well: “The lifestyles, the work habits of artists who aim to create original forms are more demanding, more self-disciplined, than we might imagine. Murakami’s life is spent in regular repetitions, like the practices of an ascetic monk; Murakami, a man of faith, likens it to prayer. That discipline is deeply related to the essence of his works. He rises before dawn and, for ten hours a day, while light shines in through his windows, concentrates intensely, striving to grasp, through its all but nonexistent changes, hard-to-perceive real presence. His spiritual concentration, casting aside the absence that is thought, is unbroken. To grasp the real, the subtle differences, he has simplified every aspect of his life.”
All images are copyright of the artist and courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery and Shigeru Yokota Gallery.